Sixth Circuit Court Rules Definition of "Employee" Includes some Volunteers, Extending Title VII Discrimination Protection

A recent ruling from Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals specifically confirms that the federal civil rights laws protect certain volunteers from discrimination at work. The case brought by a volunteer firefighter against the Middlefield Fire Dept. was originally thrown out before trial by the lower court. The Appeals court ruling reverses the lower court and sends the discrimination case back for trial, based on a determination that the law's protection against discrimination and harassment for "employees" includes employees who are unpaid.

The plaintiff in Bryson v. Middlefield had alleged sexual harassment in the form of unwanted advances by her supervisor which led to her eventual termination when she rejected the advances. The volunteer firefighter brought suit after the EEOC issued her a Notice of Right to Sue after concluding that there was enough evidence that she was "sexually harassed and subject to a sexually hostile work environment." The volunteer "employee" brought her suit in district court, where the fire department argued that Bryson, as a "firefighter member" could not be considered an employee because firefighter members were volunteers; and not "employees" under Title VII. (Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin). The lower court bought the argument and granted partial summary judgment finding the Department did not meet the statutory definition of employer by not having enough employees to be covered by federal law. The Sixth Circuit disagreed and reversed.

The Sixth Circuit's groundbreaking analysis rejects a previous Second Circuit Court opinion on employee/volunteer determination and, as some employment rights advocates might say, has made a significant push for employees' rights by stretching the boundaries as to who is considered an "employer" and "employee" with regard to Title VII claims. Because Bryson established that firefighter-members received "worker's compensation coverage, insurance coverage, gift cards, personal use of the Department's facilities and assets, training, and access to an emergency fund," the Sixth Circuit ruled that the district court made an error by adding the requirement of "significant remuneration" when trying to determine if an individual can be considered an "employee." As a result of this classification, the Department can be held responsible for discrimination and harassment under Title VII. The case now returns to the district court to determine whether sexual harassment occurred.

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